The best thing about my job is not getting to play at a place as special as Crystal Downs. The best thing is getting to spend time with a man like Mike Morris. For three decades, he's nurtured and cared for one of the greatest golf courses in the world with humility, humor and a sense of larger purpose. He's contributed to the wonderful culture of a club that looks like a little like Shinnecock and has the "small but cool" vibe of Cypress Point. He's trained plenty of great turfheads but he's just as proud of the fact that most of his regular crew have been there nearly as long as he has. His budget is adequate to support the vision for the place but nowhere near the numbers you'd see at other Top 20 clubs.
Mike is a townie who grew up in Frankfort and married his high school sweetheart. His life changed the day he started work at nearby Frankfort GC for the legendary Tuck Tate. He learned from the best and got the opportunity at CDCC just as the course was "discovered" by Ben Crenshaw and other aficionados and went from hidden gem to #13 on the Digest list. It's clear that he was destined to be there. The nicest thing he said to me was, "I'm glad you get it." High praise indeed.
About halfway through the round we discovered a mutual love of Shakespeare. We debated which of the Bard's characters would be a great superintendent and decided on Falstaff who famously said, "The better part of valor is discretion." Words to grow grass by, I'd say.
Crystal Downs is quirky, fun and fascinating. I giggled like a schoolgirl most of the round. As long as you're not keeping score, it's simply a delight to be there. It's as close to an original MacKenzie design (with a big assist from Perry Maxwell) as you'll find anywhere on the planet and it's harder than juggling greased bowling balls. The greens look benign until you pitch a ball onto them and all hell breaks loose. I only putted one ball off a green but speeds aren't quite yet to the 10-10.5 range members consider optimal. Winds swirl, targets are hidden and bunkers are exactly in the right place to snatch an apparently good shot and send it to oblivion. Native areas are...native. They're wispy and perfect.
Morris and Tom Doak (who's a member) are currently expanding a few greens that have shrunk over the years, including the fabulous crescent-shaped 7th which is one of the coolest green complexes I've ever seen.
Thank you to Mike (and to Adam Ikamas of the Michigan GCSA) for giving me the opportunity to see this very, very special place in person. I feel like a got a little peek at the soul of golf.